New Delhi: It is easy to forget that Anirudh Thapa is only 21 years old. The midfielder is pretty much a bonafide star for both the Indian team and his Indian Super League (ISL) club Chennaiyin FC.
Chennaiyin FC coach John Gregory has spoken about how new foreign players almost always want to know his name once they see him with the ball. He has been integral to Igor Stimac's vision for the Indian team, which would explain why a match without him in the starting XI is a rare sight nowadays.
Thapa's rise over the last two years has been somewhat meteoric, which won't come as a surprise to those who have seen him play the game. He has also had the rub of the green to go with his talent. His first goal for the national team came in the 2019 Asian Cup as part of India's 4-1 thrashing of Thailand in their first match of the tournament.
"Playing the Asian Cup is one of the biggest achievements I have till date. That's the biggest stage I have played in my career. It was big for me and my family because they supported me when I chose this career," Thapa told IANS.
"When I started my first game against Thailand, I was thinking, I am dreaming or what. The crowd, the atmosphere; it was amazing," he added.
Thapa was instrumental for India in the Asian Cup, particularly in their second match against the UAE, in which luck, bad finishing and some brilliant saves from the opposition goalkeeper combined to deny India a two-goal lead in the first half. Four months later, he was benched by Stimac in his first game in charge against Curacao in the King's Cup in Thailand. India lost that game 1-3. Thapa started in the second match, which was against Thailand incidentally, and scored the only goal of the game. He has started every match since.
The appointment of Stimac is seen as a step up for the Indian team. His predecessor Stephen Constantine, under whom Thapa made his debut -- while credited with infusing professionalism in the Indian team -- was also accused of being too pragmatic and defensive in his approach. Stimac has tried to make the Indian team shift to a more possession-based style.
Thapa says that there has been a significant change in his role of a midfielder under Stimac. "We were pretty much direct (under Constantine). So we had to take the second ball and start the game. But now, we need to build from the start, we need to create things. Everyone has to work hard, it's not like a few are working while the others are just waiting for the second ball or putting the ball in from behind. Everyone is aware that we need to pass, we are not just clearing the ball or defending for 90 minutes. Right now we are in a new phase, we are transforming ourselves," he said.
"It is pretty good. We have developed a lot. We can see how much better we are doing. Everyone is confident and we are all ball players. You can say that earlier there were more physical players but more players in the team are people who can move the ball and pass well."
Thapa says that his role for the national team currently is similar to what he does at Chennaiyin FC. "My role in the national team and Chennaiyin FC is the same -- number 8, moving up, building the game; it's almost the same," he said.
The difference, however, is the pressure that comes with each match. "The pressure playing for the national team is quite different from when you are playing for the club. When we are playing in the national team we are representing our country and the tempo of the game is very high. There is certainly more pressure," he said.
"While playing for the club, we (don't feel we) need to do something to prove ourselves. We are just playing for our club and we need to just execute our style. We have a mixture of Indians and foreigners so we need to just adapt to each other and play whereas in the national team we have a sense of pride and there is more of a motivation that we are playing for the national team."
India, however, were forced to abandon Stimac's possession based style when they faced Asian champions Qatar in the World Cup qualifiers. The result was a 0-0 draw away from home to the Asian champions, who possess one of the most prolific attacks in world football.
The final scoreline was celebrated, rightly enough and calculations were starting to be made on what India need to do to reach for the third round of the World Cup qualifiers as opposed to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. And then, it all came crashing down when India failed to secure a win against Bangladesh, placed 78 spots below them on the FIFA rankings.
"If we talk about the Bangladesh game, we had our plans. But they defended really well and we were not able to execute our plans. There were a lot of good things that we can talk about from that game but in the end, it is the result that matters. We are however trying to take the positives from the game and move forward," he said.
It was no surprise when Thapa was one of the 26 players that made up the squad which will now face Afghanistan (November 14) and Oman (November 19).
Afghanistan are placed 149th on the FIFA rankings, India are 106th. But that doesn't matter in the standings of Group E of the AFC World Cup qualification in which India are fourth and Afghanistan third thanks to their win against Bangladesh in September. India are yet to record a victory this year. "Afghanistan are a good side. It will be a tough match. They have won against Bangladesh and they are a confident team," he said.
Thapa may be one of the regulars but he is not taking his place for granted. "The team is almost the same as the one that played earlier and now we can see more of the younger players which is good for the future. For us also it is great because there is more competition. He (Stimac) can give a chance to anyone you know because we cannot say that one person is more experienced or anything. Everyone is new and fresh. Whoever does well in the camp will get the chance," he said.